The first round of the NHL playoffs is nearly upon us, and the Pittsburgh Penguins have drawn the Philadelphia Flyers. The series will begin on Wednesday night, and fans should man their proverbial battle stations; this will be a hard-fought battle between two teams that always seem to bring the worst out in each other at this time of year.
There are storylines galore to follow in this quarterfinal.
The Flyers can score goals in bunches, but can they match Pittsburgh’s depth up front? What about Philadelphia’s injury-ravaged crease? Will Derick Brassard be healthy enough to make an impact from the third line? How long will it be before tempers flare up and the series takes on a physical edge?
Lost in all that shuffle is Matt Murray, who has a unique opportunity to cement his reputation as one of the top money goaltenders in the NHL by going on another deep playoff run.
What Murray Has Already Accomplished
Murray wasn’t Pittsburgh’s goaltender of the future until he suddenly was thrust into that role in 2016. He made his regular-season debut on Dec. 19, 2015, against the Carolina Hurricanes, and four months later, he found himself as the Penguins’ last netminder standing as Jeff Zatkoff proved unreliable and Fleury was sidelined with an injury.
It seems odd to think about this team taking the ice with anyone else in between the pipes two years later, but the former second-round pick was a big question mark in that series against the New York Rangers once he took over for Zatkoff in Game 3.
It took all of two games for Murray to evolve from a question mark for Pittsburgh into a massive problem that the Blueshirts couldn’t seem to solve.
Despite Fleury eventually getting healthy enough to play, Murray maintained steady control of the starting goaltender job and started every game of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. It was only the sixth time since the mid-70s that a rookie goaltender had backstopped a team to the final round, and Murray helped the Penguins dispose of the San Jose Sharks in six games.
In other words, he owned a Stanley Cup ring before ever playing through an entire season as the No. 1. All Murray did for an encore was recover from an injury just in time to help Pittsburgh defend its championship. He was hurt prior to Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets last year but was able to return to action in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final.
Again, Murray was up to the task at hand. He was pulled from that contest against a fired up Ottawa Senators team but rebounded well in Game 4. It took the Penguins seven games and two overtimes to finally dispatch of the Senators, but Murray stopped 27 of Ottawa’s 29 shots in Game 7, propelling Pittsburgh to the Final.
The Nashville Predators awaited there, and Murray pitched shutouts in Game 5 and Game 6 to win his second consecutive Stanley Cup. Not a bad way to break into the league.
What Murray Is Playing for in These Playoffs
Turning to an inexperienced netminder during the postseason isn’t entirely unprecedented, but Murray’s ascension to Pittsburgh’s starting job has been remarkable. There have been a few bumps along the way, but by and large, the Penguins have been able to rely on their netminder when it has mattered most.
Following an all-important win in Game 4 against Ottawa last year, head coach Mike Sullivan had this to say about Murray and his ability to make important stops:
“He made some timely saves for us when we needed it. He has a calm demeanor about him. I thought he was tracking the puck extremely well. And certainly, he made a couple of key saves for us at key times.”
Pittsburgh doesn’t need Murray to hijack games. The Penguins just need a steady presence in the blue paint, and that’s what Murray brings to the ice every night. He’s yet to lose a playoff series and has lost back-to-back playoff games just once since taking over for Zatkoff two years ago.
That’s a remarkable amount of consistency, and Murray is another strong round or two away from cementing himself as one of the best “clutch” goaltenders in the business. The concept of certain goalies being “money” in high-pressure situations isn’t accepted in all circles, but Matt Murray can’t hear those grievances.
Not with the two Stanley Cup rings, he has to clog his ears with.
How He Matches Up Against the Flyers
Of course, they bother to play the games for a reason. The Flyers have an effective offense; one that finished the season with the 12th-best goals scored per game average but has been looking much better over the last few months. In fact, from the start of January onward, only four teams scored more goals than Philadelphia.
One of those teams was the Penguins, so Philadelphia is really going to have to pump some pucks past Murray if it hopes to win this series. He’s not prone to dropping back-to-back contests, though, so the task is a tall one.
The Flyers haven’t had much success against the netminder in 2017-18, either. Some folks like to toss the regular season out the window once the postseason begins, but Murray saw Philadelphia three times this year. He stopped 72 of the 78 shots that he saw, including 41 saves on 45 shots on March 25.
There’s always a puncher’s chance that an offense will be able to get to a goaltender on any given night, but the Penguins have to like their chances in this series if they continue to score like they have been and Murray is as steady as we know he can be during the playoffs.
He’ll drop a series eventually, but it might not be this one.